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GRUENSTADT, Germany — German bakers at the American-owned bakery here have mastered the technique of making bread so soft it can be rolled into small, squishy balls. And the quintessential square loaves are baked according to an exact recipe, a trade secret the bakers are not allowed to divulge.

Wonder Bread, an American icon, is being produced by the truckload five days a week, 52 weeks a year at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service’s largest bakery overseas.

The 63 German bakers at the Exchange Bakery Europe are catering to the starchy palates of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, government civilians and their families living in Europe. Not that Germany doesn’t produce a plethora of delicious white and brown breads, but the troops love a taste of home.

With licenses to produce more than a dozen different name-brand U.S. bread products, the bakery makes many of the same baked goods found on store shelves and in popular restaurant chains in the United States.

Each week, the bakery, equipped with industrial-size flour silos, dough mixers and ovens, turns out thousands of buns, tortilla shells, donuts, bread loaves, pastries, pizza shells, muffins, cakes and cookies that are trucked to commissaries, restaurants, school kitchens and dining facilities at U.S. military bases across Europe. Most products arrive fresh — frozen at farther destinations in Italy and Turkey — ready for store shelves by the next day.

“We make it all here,” Mathias Baum, the bakery manager and German master baker, said.

“It’s much too expensive to bring bread in from the States,” he said. “Then everything would be frozen.”

The goal, Baum says, is to reduce transportation costs while giving customers “high-quality products” made according to U.S. food regulations.

Production starts at midnight with automatic scaling of ingredients; allergen-producing items, like eggs, nuts and milk powder, are added by hand. Bath-tub size dough mixers start churning before dawn. Soon, the ovens are fired up, and before long, a column of hot loaves begins its march down multiple conveyor belts. The doughy fragrance permeates the air. At the end of the line, an automated 26-knife slicer cuts the loaves in one swift motion, a puff of air blows off the crumbs, and a mechanical arm shoves the bread into labeled plastic bags. Eight loaves get sliced per minute.

Of the four bakeries AAFES maintains overseas, the one in Gruenstadt is the company’s largest and most modern, Baum said, producing about 270 different items. The others are in Asia — one in Korea, one on Okinawa, and one near Tokyo, Japan.

“These bakeries are the only bakeries in the world where we get approval to bake (brands such as) Wonder, Milton’s, Country Hearth and Pillsbury in the same production plant,” Baum said. “Because we produce for the military, we get approval to do it, as long as we fulfill their standards.”

Bakeries for U.S. troops began springing up all over Europe in the spring of 1947 — about two years after the Nazi surrender marked the end of World War II in Europe. The Gruenstadt facility opened in 1982, after space was identified inside a large supply depot now called the European Industrial Activity. It replaced three main bakeries in Germany, and all other European locations.

For several years, the bakery made a handful of different breads under Nature’s Recipe, an AAFES generic name brand. In 1986, it started working with U.S. national companies to produce baked goods under their individual brand names. The first to sign on was Pillsbury, but now the list includes more than 15, from Milton’s bread to Burger King.

The hefty, sesame-seed Whopper buns at Burger King restaurants on U.S. military bases throughout Europe are made in Gruenstadt. So is the dough for Cinnabon, rolled, cut into buns and sent out cold. Buns served at Chili’s, Johnny Rockets, Charley’s and Popeye’s all come from Gruenstadt’s ovens.

All these companies have agreed to share their “secret recipes,” which are closely guarded, says Baum. Brand-name packaging is provided, and companies receive a percentage of sales revenue.

About 90 percent of the ingredients used in the bakery’s 270 items are imported from the States. Salt, sugar and herbs such as rosemary and thyme are purchased locally, Baum said.

Flour is a different beast. U.S. food regulations require the use of enriched white flour. This flour is shipped from the United States by boat in 17-ton containers, a journey that can take up to five weeks to reach the bakery’s eight giant storage silos. Whole-grain flour makes a similar trek in 50-pound bags. The bakery’s warehouse is stockpiled with a taste of America: 60-pound containers of honey from Dayton, Ohio, 43-pound tubs of Dawn-brand icing, sacks of wheat and rye flour blends from Montana Milling and Cargill, and Champion raisin juice (a natural preservative used to reduce mold in dark bread).

Some bakers – all of whom are subject to rigorous background screenings – receive vocational training in the United States, with such organizations as the American Institute of Baking, to learn how to make American baked goods, Baum said.

Quality and consistency are strictly controlled.

Samples of some bakery products are sent regularly by courier service to each company’s bakery headquarters or a food lab for testing. On a recent weekday, a quality assurance inspector from Burger King was scrutinizing a batch of Whopper buns with pen and paper handy, looking at size, color and whether and cracking was evident in the bread.

An October 2012 certificate, posted on the bakery wall, notes Wonder Cracked Wheat Bread received a second-highest rating of “very good,” evaluated on crumb color, flavor, texture, crust character, symmetry and slicing.

At a time when the number of U.S. troops in Europe is diminishing and more and more products crowd store shelves, the bakery is determined to remain competitive. It has plans to further reduce transportation costs by increasing the number of locally made products. and its product variety is expanding. A new AAFES-brand pastry is due in Exchange stores soon. The “Dossant” is a twist on the Cronut, a croissant-doughnut hybrid that swept New York City this summer.

In a shift from Wonder Bread tradition, whole-grain products are becoming a bigger slice of the bakery’s enterprise, Baum says, as customers demand more healthy products.

This year, AAFES switched to 100 percent whole-grain baked goods for school lunches, while requests from military dining facilities for low-fat, whole-grain, transfat-free foods is becoming standard, Baum said.

Still, some things haven’t changed, he said. Wonder’s white sandwich bread remains the bakery’s most popular product.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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